State cash helps Longmeadow bridge, but it doesn't eliminate the toll drivers will pay
Long-sought state funding for Kane County's Longmeadow Parkway will help push the 5.6-mile corridor to completion. But it won't eliminate the toll -- yet.
State lawmakers included $17.5 million for the project in a marathon state budget session last weekend. After the bipartisan Longmeadow funding passed, some state lawmakers, such as state Rep. Suzanne Ness, issued statements saying the money "eliminated" the need for a toll on the parkway.
But the money in the state's 2023 budget is only about half of what county officials sought to eliminate the toll.
The toll became a necessary to help fund the Longmeadow Parkway bridge over the Fox River when, unlike the Stearns Road bridge, not enough federal and state money came through to pay for the project at the northern border of Kane County. County officials sold bonds to pay for the construction and ongoing maintenance.
County board members decided a toll would be the best way to repay the money borrowed through the bonds because, they argued, non-county residents in McHenry and Cook counties using the parkway would pay a fair amount of those tolls. That, and discounted toll rates for Kane County residents, would relieve some of the financial burdens of the toll and repaying the bonds.
But the toll is also the least popular portion of the plan. County board members on the northern end of the county, in particular Chris Kious, have lamented the need to pay a toll to travel from one side of the Fox River to the other -- unlike other bridge projects in the area like Stearns Road or the Red Gate in St. Charles.
Former county board Chairman Chris Lauzen lobbied state lawmakers for additional funding to eliminate the toll. He was unsuccessful because of fractured relationships with several area lawmakers and because the toll plan assured the project would be completed even without additional help from the state.
In November 2020, Corinne Pierog became the first Democrat elected as chair of the county board. She renewed the lobbying for Longmeadow and found more willing ears among her fellow Democrats, who control the state's purse strings in Springfield.
"Since the current county board inherited the significant debt of the Longmeadow Parkway Bridge Corridor, our representatives in Springfield have unified behind an effort to find financial help that will protect Kane County taxpayers," Pierog said in a statement before the passage of the new state budget.
But in the lead-up to the state budget vote, it was clear there wouldn't be enough money coming to Kane County to eliminate the need for a toll. State Rep. Anna Moeller described the $17.5 million as "the first installment" of funding for the parkway.
"We will continue to work to include funding in next year's budget to cover the entire cost needed to keep the bridge toll-free," Moeller wrote in a statement on Facebook.
That comment came in the context of state lawmakers believing the project would not be completed until sometime in 2024. That belief is incorrect.
Kane County Division of Transportation officials confirmed Monday the project will continue construction this year and open in 2023. Although the toll collection mechanism is one of the few parts of construction not yet complete, the county has already bought and paid for all the components and their installation.
With no guarantee that state lawmakers will come through with more funding for Longmeadow in the 2024 budget, the plan is to install to complete Longmeadow and open it up in 2023 with active toll collection, said county spokeswoman Julie Mann. If more funding comes through to eliminate the toll, the county will use the toll collection components for "some other public purpose."
"This money does not make the bridge toll-free -- yet," Mann said. "Everyone's effort remains that we make the bridge toll-free."